Ask your average American how they’re feeling and only 14% will tell you they are very happy, according to a poll conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago.
It only takes a few minutes on social media to see abundant self-deprecating and often plainly suicidal discussion. The statement “I want to kill myself” has become far too normalized as a joke among working millennials to not be the sign of deeper societal problems. Add on to this the reality of the COVID pandemic, and your result is a catastrophic lack of happiness — the complete collapse of mental health.
Work, Happiness and America:
America’s constitution protects our right to the pursuit of happiness, yet in the present day, this seems nigh impossible.
What is at the core of this problem? Is it school and work that have made many miserable? If the happiness of Americans has been steadily decreasing in the past 50 years, is this tied to our changing economic and political situations? Does American unhappiness directly correlate with the political turmoil which we have seen in 2020 and early 2021?
It is here where COVID comes into play. If the pandemic has exacerbated some of our worse mental health problems, it has also demonstrated the unfair inequalities of the system which we inhabit.
In 2019, a survey by Career-builder found that 78% of its participants lived paycheck-to-paycheck. A 2020 survey by Highland found that 63% of its participants were living paycheck-to-paycheck, with millennials being the most adversely affected group.
Information gathered by the Census Bureau shows alarming percentages of economic struggle in almost all of its categories. All in all, the pandemic has shown the very thin line which many Americans thread; an uncomfortably tight limbo between economic stability and none.
With wealth inequality in America rising alongside a disappearing middle class, we can assume many things, but undeniably, American unhappiness can be (in part) connected to our lack of economic freedom.
If COVID demonstrated the collapse of the economic situation of many Americans, it was already frail beforehand. Without good economic standing, Americans are trapped in a cycle of dissatisfactory work to maintain themselves.
How many Americans return home exhausted and unhappy, without the energy to engage in their hobbies, study or do anything other than rest? Is this truly a happy working life or simply a life of work to survive?
But more pressing is the unfortunate truth that those with the most need to be heard are the least acknowledged. A Cambridge University study in 2014 found that the interests of wealthy elites and interest groups often had more political weight than that of average citizens. It would be difficult to prove that this is still not true today.
What does this say about the power dynamic of our society, disproportionally favoring those in the highest of economic classes who have the economic freedom to take risks and actions that your average worker can’t?
COVID the Great Equalizer:
In the places where COVID has hit the hardest, it has brought the most change. Alongside government-mandated lockdown has come to a paradigm shift in the way we see our relationship with economic equality.
Where once your employer decided whether you could stay at home or not, now the government does. It is in the interest of businesses that the nation reopens as soon as possible, with the power dynamic out of their hands, and their debts adding up.
With the government taking very little action to tackle the serious issue of economic inequality, what would happen if, for example, workers refused to show up to work after lockdown?
What would be the national reaction to a mass protest of workers through a national halt of work?
As for students, what changes to the educational system could come from a similar protest? Would such a thing be feasible, legal, or effective? Could it be used to advocate for the mental health of workers, students and those feeling disenfranchised by the growing gap in wealth?
Ultimately, COVID and the past year have shown America that there is plenty standing in the way of the true American dream. Our American freedom should encompass our economic situation as much as everything else. Failure to recognize and act upon our disparities will only deepen the gap between classes, and make a change in the future all the much harder.
If we are unable to separate our politics from wealthy-class interests, what will become of our political system, where money defines your ability to speak?
Too often we forget that our constitution mandates that all Americans be given the right to pursue happiness. If our economic situation produces unhappy and struggling workers, we are certainly failing.
Ultimately, it will fall on the shoulders of the government to take the legal steps necessary to ensure that wealth in our economic system does not accumulate in a minuscule fraction of the population.
However, only through action can the American worker make his voice heard, his dissatisfaction explained, his ideas considered, and the creation of a truly fair capitalist system achieved.